I well remember my 1971 environmental physics class discussion of the greenhouse effect caused by global CO2 emissions and other gases.
The concept is simple: Solar radiation enters the earth’s atmosphere but increasing levels of greenhouse gases hamper adequate cooling of our environment. From the beginning of the Industrial Age, Americans simply neglected to consider the consequences of burning fossil fuels. We prospered and the world followed, and still does.
Fast forward, the scientific evidence is in, although many wish to debate or simply ignore it. NASA cites that 97 percent of scientists agree that global warming is very likely due to greenhouse gases emitted by human activities. How will this trend influence life on this planet as we know and enjoy it? Are we past the point of repairing the harm already done and on a path towards global catastrophe? Are we, citizens of earth, mortgaging the planet to grim prospects for future generations? Sadly, I am deeply concerned that we are.
Finally, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have announced an agreement that significant efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels must and will be made. CNN reported on Nov. 12: “China has agreed to provide another 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030. That amount of zero-emission output exceeds all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and is close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”
Electrical generation and transportation emissions are the major culprits. Well over two-thirds of U.S. electricity is generated from coal, oil and gas. Many large economies around the world and the improvement in our collective standard of living have been highly dependent on fossil fuels. Conservation and renewable resources are beneficial but the demand exceeds the supply. Both wind power and solar energy are part of the equation but aren’t close to having the capacity to replace other electrical generation methods.
Iceland is fortunate enough to be able to tap geothermal heat for electricity and France has embraced non-CO2 emitting nuclear energy. Nuclear power in the U.S. and many other countries is based on 50-year old technology that raises concerns about risks. Calls by environmentalists to disinvest in oil and gas companies may provide some with satisfaction that something is being done, but given the absence of significant alternatives, it is not apparent this action would contribute to solving the problem.
There are many new technologies being studied and developed (search the Internet and you will find many ideas, both far-fetched and realistic) that both provide electricity without emissions and new ideas about carbon sequestration. One need only look at Bill Gates’ venture capital initiatives that address some of the world’s largest problems, including energy and carbon (see Techno Ventures, TerraPower, and Carbon Engineering, for example).
I am an advocate for advanced nuclear designs and combined, one-stop licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the past, a utility would have to obtain a license to build a plant, spend a decade and billions in construction, and hope they receive an operating license. That is among the reasons no new nuclear plants have come online in the US in decades while Asia now builds the most advanced reactors largely developed by American based technology.
Legitimate fears of nuclear weaponry and reactor mishaps have caused public distrust, much warranted. But I believe nuclear power is a necessary and balanced part of the solution.
New fuel cell technology is a possible answer for transportation challenges; but again, it requires electricity to produce the hydrogen. Producing hydrogen during periods of low energy needs by renewable means is a sound idea (see “OSU engineering students win big/Trio earns top award,” June 7, 2014, The Bulletin, Bend).
No one likes to be increasingly taxed on gasoline; certainly not a very palatable idea! Nonetheless, a steep progressive tax on carbon-emitting fuels, worldwide if feasible but certainly starting in the U.S. where gas taxes are relatively low compared to most of the world, should be part of the conversation. It is vital that such funds be dedicated for essential research and development to provide our children’s children a hopeful future. Not a rosy outlook, but this is a problem that requires us all to “put skin in the game” or face the consequences.
Mark Weiss is president of Western Oregon University in Monmouth, but the opinions expressed herein do not represent the views of the university. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Mark Weiss, Special to the Statesman Journal